The Vault: Totally Unproductive

10 April 2013 Fiona Scott-Norman

The Vault: Totally Unproductive

Illustration by Greg Bakes; original photo by Miles Standish

Fiona Scott-Norman, Ed#410, July 2012

A government plan to reward teachers for ‘productivity’ suggests legislators themselves need a lesson in the real value of a good educator.

When I hear the word ‘productivity’, I release the safety on my Browning. It’s not – I hasten to add – that working harder for less money isn’t attractive. As a freelance creative it’s practically a mission statement. I have it in cross-stitch over my fireplace.
Nor is it because, as a one-time insular only child, I have an almost supernatural ability to while away the hours. I once spent an entire afternoon sitting on a rock in a field humming to myself. Left to my own devices I can achieve vegetable grade non-activity.
So, not that. But now, whenever I hear the word ‘productivity’, my hackles rise. As a positive I get to feel, fleetingly, like Buffy in the seconds prior to a vampire attack (ie in the presence of unspeakable evil and wanting to stab something). But this is poor compensation for the wear and tear on my adrenals.
Back in the day, ‘increased productivity’ was a measure applied to things like steelworks, or cassette-tape and salad-spinner factories. Workers were required to up their efficiency and pump out more car parts/commemorative underpants/ingots of pig iron per hour. Which is fine, predominantly because it’s a no brainer to quantify: output of Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 on eight track has increased by 28%; cue a photograph of Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things (a most amusing tumblr if you’ve not had the pleasure).
But now, ‘productivity’ is a weasel word applied to the essentially unquantifiable. Specifically, teaching. Rather than, say, paying all teachers a decent professional wage, the official stance seems to be that the ‘high performing’ teachers should get a one-off ‘productivity bonus’. The rest can, presumably, suffer in their jocks.
The scheme is now being trialled in Victoria, and is slated to affect other states next year. But, ironically, even the Productivity Commission now says the plan should be scrapped. Apparently, it trialled badly. Of course it did. How on Earth can we measure the ‘productivity’ of teachers? I know how they will measure it: by grades, because you can’t represent kindness, dedication and inspiration on a spreadsheet, but it’s as counterintuitive as being told not to use cotton buds to clean inside your ears.
A great teacher isn’t one who squeezes straight ‘A’s out of their students; apart from anything else, if your pupils all get ‘A’s, either you’re cheating or you’re at a school that has cherry-picked its students. It’s not hard to come first with Black Caviar in your stable, but it’s a wonderful win if you can get a donkey to finish the course.
The truly great teacher makes the vulnerable children feel safe, takes extra time with the dyslexic kid, and manages to engage a class of wriggling, disengaged teens for more than
10 minutes. One friend, Paul, was bullied so severely at school he had learning difficulties for a couple of years; he credits his art teacher for saving his life, because she’d lock him in the craft room at lunchtime. If he wasn’t locked in, he was beaten to mush by a dedicated band of roving homophobes.
Where’s her bonus? And where’s my primary school teacher’s bonus for playing chess with me because no one would hang out with me at recess? Where, in fact, will be the ‘productivity’ bonuses for any art, music or drama teacher?
No one can measure the value of a student production of Fiddler on the Roof, or evaluate whether it was an improvement on last year’s all-girl Waiting for Godot. No one, ever, should be asked to objectively judge a Year 12 recorder recital. But all those disciplines are havens for the weird, sensitive, sometimes smelly students who have no social skills and write bad poetry; they’re the ones who need to be nurtured, and I’m entirely sure there’s no existing scale for quantifying that.
The teachers I remember were the ones who were kind to me. One teacher, Mr Goddard, actually lightly roughed up someone who’d been bullying me. In front of the whole class. “It feels great to pick on someone smaller and weaker, doesn’t it?” he said, as he cast my oppressor to the ground. I know that’s illegal and all now, but, I tell you, my heart sang for a week.
A good teacher makes your heart sing. The grades follow. Those who argue otherwise should reacquaint themselves with Oscar Wilde, because they know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Fiona Scott-Norman will appear with Stella Young in the 2013 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show 'Don't Peak at High School' from 11–13 and 18–20 April.